As I sat outside at a café in my neighborhood working on some short stories this Sunday afternoon, I felt overwhelmed by the feedback from friends and writing peers that I was trying to process, and use to improve my stories.
In the past two years since I’ve lived in DC, I’ve gotten involved with several writing groups and communities, and attended many literary events in town. I visited the National Book Festival both this September and last, and heard two of my favorite authors speak (The Nightingale author Kristin Hannah in 2016, and Nathan Hill, author of The Nix this year.) I attended a writing salon at the National Gallery of Art, and ended up making a great writing exchange partner through that workshop, and I’ve also gotten useful feedback on some of my short stories and writing projects through creative writing classes at Georgetown’s school of continuing studies, and the Writer’s Center.
While its awesome getting advice from other writers, it can also be overwhelming and confusing to process multiple readers’ perspectives on a piece, and take in (sometimes too much) criticism and feedback.
In a writing workshop or group, I like to make a column of positives and negatives and jot down notes as each person provides their feedback on my story, or as I read through it later. This forces me to acknowledge that there were good things too. It’s easy to dwell on the aspects of the story that didn’t work, and what needs to be changed. Thinking about the strengths of the piece can provide a jumping off point for addressing those parts that weren’t as successful.
One of my writing buddies, Sheila, mentioned that the reader brings his or her own baggage to any story, novel, or piece of fiction. I hadn’t considered this before, but after thinking about it I completely agree. How people react to what they read is filtered through their own experiences, which could be drastically different from your own.
I try to pause and carefully consider each piece of advice or feedback that is offered from someone critiquing my work, and decide for myself if their suggestion or criticism has merit, and if it really speaks to me as true. Some feedback should be disregarded. A reader may feel compelled to “participate” for participation’s sake in a class setting, or they may not be within your target audience, or particularly be a fan of the genre you write. Sometimes, people just have their own idea for where the story should go that doesn’t match with your vision.
Some criticism stings. As thick of a skin as writers/artists/creatives are supposed to develop to shield themselves from the vast array of responses to subjective art, its often difficult to separate oneself from a piece of writing or other creative work that is personal.
In a writing workshop a few weeks ago one of my colleagues told me that she didn’t like the main character of my story. I asked her why, wanting to know what provoked this dislike, and she replied that the character was “boring and judgmental.” While I didn’t intend to write a “boring” or “judgmental” protagonist in my story, I could see how the limited information about this character’s personality, and the lack of details regarding her background, ambitions, and current place in life could possibly elicit that conclusion.
Asking that question motivated me to really think about who this character was and to create a more compelling background story for her. Digging deeper on criticism that seems vague or unfounded can also be a good way to know if the feedback being offered is worth considering.
la fille americaine